With seven games remaining in the 2019-2020 regular season, Saturday night in Portland was a key meeting between two teams looking to secure playoff positioning.
The Victoria Royals (31-23-6-2) made the trip south to face the Portland Winterhawks (44-11-3-4) in the first of a back-to-back series.
Entering the night tied with Vancouver, Victoria looked to gain a valuable two points in the B.C. Division standings for the right to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Portland was desperate for points as well as they attempt to keep pace with Everett. One will not only win the U.S. Division, but also secure the top spot in the Western Conference. Both teams are keeping an eye on the Edmonton Oil Kings — leaders in the Eastern Conference — for first place in the league.
Back in January when the two teams met, on the island, both meetings required overtime.
Saturday in Portland was no different with the Winterhawks evening the score with under 30 seconds to play before finding the 5-4 winner 18 seconds into overtime.
The visitors came out strong early and found the back of the net twice in the opening 20 minutes.
Victoria’s head coach Dan Price said, “I thought the work rate, the work ethic, was tremendous. The competition level was very high. You could see guys sacrificing, blocking shots, everyone was really committed to winning, that was tremendous.”
In his 50th WHL game defenseman Nolan Bentham found the back of the net for the first time in his career. The goal came with a screen in front of Winterhawks starting goalie Joel Hofer.
“Man the guys were so happy for him on the bench,” Price said. “He is a great young player, a great person, a big part of the team and will be going forward. The great thing about that was it was a good, fundamental skill. It was a quick-release shot, low, on net. It is just one of those things that Doug Bodger talks about all the time with the defense, ‘Execute those fundamentals well and you’ll have a great career.’ That is Nolan starting to finally show some progression and him evolving in that way.”
The Royals continued their strong road period scoring on the power play. Victoria only needed five seconds to convert on its man advantage. Nick Cicek was called for interference and the Royals won the offensive zone faceoff. The point shot by Mitch Prowse got through onto Hofer. Kaid Oliver found the loose rebound and tucked it in for his first of two goals on the night.
Despite his team trailing by two, Winterhawks head coach Mike Johnston was pleased with how his team played in the first period. “I actually thought in the first we played a good first period. We kept them to five shots. We didn’t get a lot in the first period, but I just felt we were playing a longer bench. We would potentially wear them down at one point in time. So I was really quite happy with how we played in the first because they are a fast starting team, a hard forechecking team.”
Less than five minutes into the second period Portland got on the board thanks to 17-year-old sensation Seth Jarvis. A lapse in defensive zone coverage by Victoria left the 2002-born winger alone in front — something Price mentioned he wanted his team to clean up moving forward.
Victoria restored its two goal lead when Oliver registered his second of the evening. What appeared to be a harmless shot from center ice, the puck took a crazy bounce and caught Hofer leaving the net to play the puck. The goal was Oliver’s 22nd of the season. The 19-year-old, with connections to the Portland area, returned to the ice after missing the previous two against Vancouver.
A pivotal moment of the game occurred when Portland had 1:09 of five-on-three power-play time to try to get back into the game. The Royals initially killed off both penalties thanks to a relentless pressure style of defending.
Johnston mentioned, “They are a high pressure team and are on their toes and are well coached as a working team. They don’t give you many options, you better be sharp or it is going to be hard to play against those guys because they do make a lot of plays (shorthanded).”
Price agreed, “That was a huge positive building block with the three-on-five penalty kill. That is massive, against any team, but especially against Portland on the road. The guys did a great job of executing in what they were asked to execute. The bench got a huge lift, but unfortunately the breakdowns happened five-on-five on those d-zone draws. Credit to Portland for executing offensively, but we felt like we could have controlled those situations.”
Despite failing to score on the power play, the Winterhawks still scored twice before the 2nd period horn sounded.
Jack O’Brien picked up his fourth goal in two games on a rebound from Adam Evanoff. The initial shot by Jarvis was turned aside, but the 16-year-old rookie was in the right place to backhand the puck in for his 14th of the season.
On a scramble play, Portland tied the game with 58 seconds left in the middle frame. Matthew Quigley scooped up a loose puck in the slot and sent a wrist shot towards the net. His first attempt was blocked, but stayed with the play and got his second shot by the defender and Evanoff.
“I thought it was really good for him,” Johnston said. “(Quigley) had the one shot and then followed up the rebound and put it away. Those are big goals at the end of the period there.”
The 20-year-old had to wait a little longer for confirmation of his second goal. Price mentioned the review saying, “Portland did touch it with a high stick before the goal, but we touched it after so that negates the potential for the goal to be waived off. That is reviewable and they did review it, so that was very good. The officials were on that, both the off ice and on ice officials.”
In the third period both teams had chances before Tarun Fizer gave the Royals a 4-3 lead with 3:13 remaining.
The 2001-born forward from Chestermere, Alberta elected to shoot on a two-on-one as he raced into the Portland zone. Scoring for the 18th time in 2019-2020, Fizer again demonstrated a fundamental Price was proud to witness. “A quick release, low, short side, low blocker, in stride, that was a pro shot. It is a basic skill executed at a high level.”
Portland tied the game late with the extra attacker on the ice.
Price felt “the point was huge, and having the lead late, being in a position to win is huge. We made a couple of errors five-on-six, which is not to take anything away from Portland, but if we correct those things it puts us in even better control. The fact that we were in position to win, we can control those things, those are real confidence boost going forward.”
Jake Gricius was able to beat Evanoff with Cross Hanas standing at the top of the blue paint.
“That was the first time I’ve been out there in that kind of situation this year,” Hanas shared postgame. “To be out there when we scored that tying goal in the last minute was so fun. All of us jumped on Jake, it was a great celebration, sweet to see the puck slide in.”
Victoria however was not pleased and thought there was possible goalie interference on Evanoff.
Price shared, “I won’t comment on right or wrong or anything like that. Our view was there was possibly goalie interference. Their view was that it wasn’t, and that is a judgement call in the moment. The goalie interference is subjective, they didn’t have it on the ice so we have to respect that and it happens quickly.”
With the game tied at four, the two teams prepared for overtime.
Johnston sent Hanas, Gricius, and captain Johnny Ludvig over the boards to start overtime.
“Me, John, and Jake drew up a play going to the faceoff dot,” Hanas explained after scoring the game winning goal. “We kind of got the puck off the draw, looked at each other and were like, ‘okay, let’s try it.’ We executed it perfectly I think. I knew I had the guy beat, and Jake just had to get me the puck. He did an unbelievable job, just a perfect sauce pass right on my tape, hit me in stride.”
Hanas converted on the breakaway giving Portland the thrilling 5-4 comeback victory and two points in the standings.
With Everett losing at home against Seattle, Portland jumped ahead of the Silvertips by one point. With a point themselves, the Royals matched Vancouver who also fell in overtime.
While Price was proud of how his team played, there were also some aspects that were a cause of frustration. “A few errors in execution, some faceoff coverage in our D-zone that gave Portland some opportunities, the tying goal five-on-six we made a couple of errors, Portland had a great set play in overtime. Those are all things as a coach you take really personally. You just want to make sure the guys really understand ‘Here is what we need to do in these situations, five on five, d-zone facoffs, five-on-six play, overtime play.’ It is a tough lesson to learn, and I know we are late in the season, but some of those situations were new. So these are good situations to learn from and you just want to make sure you are rock solid on those things going into the playoffs.”
Johnston preferred how his team played at home compared to on the road against the Royals. “We had a lot of trouble up in Victoria. I thought our puck movement was good tonight, we were resilient tonight. At the end of the game, if we would have lost the game, I still felt like we played a good game. I thought we did a lot of good things, and if you play that way nine times out of ten you are probably going to win the game.”
He continued, “As I told our players, when you have a team coming in like Victoria, a good solid team from the other division, and we get them for a two game series, we have to treat it like a playoff series. I think it is good practice for us heading down the stretch to have a team back-to-back because that is what is going to happen in the first games in the series. You are going to play a Friday and Saturday night game, it is going to be exactly like it was tonight.”
Victoria and Portland meet again on Sunday for the fourth and final time in the regular season.
Price said, “As much as it stings, and as much as it hurts to lose, Portland played very well. We will learn from those lessons and will be better for it the next few games. Overall, if the competition level, if it is there like it was tonight, it is going to be another great game.”
Johnston hopes to see his team “just bring the energy we played with tonight and our puck decisions” into Sunday evening.
For Hanas, his focus is on “compete level. We need to out work them and beat them on the forecehck and not let them swarm us on the forecheck and pin us in our zone. The biggest key will be breakouts and us getting in on the forecheck.”
– Victoria only dressed 17 skaters — 11 forwards and 6 defensemen — due to injury. However, Oliver returned after missing two games, Jacob Herauf after missing seven, and Ty Yoder after sitting out ten.
– Adam Evanoff finished the evening stopping 38-of-43. Price said postgame, “I could tell Adam was going to have a good one. He doesn’t usually skate in the morning, but he wanted to today. I don’t think he let a goal in. I mean, he was making third and fourth saves in the morning skate, it was unbelievable. He is just so competitive and so prepared. I had a feeling he was going to have a good one tonight.”
– Joel Hofer turned aside 18-of-22 Victoria shots.
– The Royals went 1-for-2 on the power play to win the special teams battle. The Winterhawks were not able to convert on three man advantage opportunities.
– With a goal and an assist, Jack O’Brien hit the 30 point mark for a 16-year-old rookie.